The Jacobs Foundation recently awarded a five-year, nearly $11 million grant to the University of California, Irvine to create a collaborative network of educators and researchers to help design digital technologies for children.
The Connecting the EdTech Research EcoSystem (CERES) brings together experts in computer science, psychology, neuroscience, and education, to better utilize education technology’s potential.
CERES will be headed by Candice Odgers, UCI professor of psychological science, and Gillian Hayes, UCI vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate Division. The duo recently discussed the trends they see in edtech research and the questions they hope to pursue answers for with CERES.
1. More Equitable Edtech
“When new technologies come around, they tend to amplify inequalities, in a rich-get-richer way,” Odgers says. For example, many edtech companies have contracts with schools that only allow students to access apps within the school day. “If the kids are going to do follow-up work at home, parents have to buy a secondary license. And to me, this is problematic. We need to give our kids access anytime, particularly in a world in which we might be pulling them out for a week at a time because we need to shut down a classroom for a quarantine,” Odgers says.
Getting those with disabilities equal access to technology is also vital. Technology has empowered so many kids and kept them learning through the pandemic, Hayes says. “But we also saw that for kids with disabilities, they missed out on a lot of the really important services that they are normally able to get.”
Helping to ensure tech innovations support equitable learning solutions for all students, rather than exasperating existing inequalities is one of the key goals of CERES, say Odgers and Hayes.
2. Bringing More Evidence to Edtech
The edtech field is large and full of options, for educators, students, and parents, but there often isn’t enough evidence for which tech-based tools have been proven helpful for children.
“There are tons of people in the space who have really good intentions with programs to help kids,” Odgers says.
Good intentions don’t always lead to positive results, however, and determining what actually works and for whom is key for edtech going forward, as is understanding that for each child that formula might be different. “It's less about the effectiveness of a specific app or a platform, and more about understanding the basic fundamental principles of how children develop and learn in this new digital world and how we can design better technologies that take advantage of the strengths that communities and children have,” Odgers says.
Researchers increasingly have new data to work with. In 2018, The General Data Protection Regulation went into effect in Europe, and its requirements include the need for companies that operate in the EU to allow users to download the data an app gathers about them.
Thanks to this and similar requirements in several U.S. states, most edtech companies allow users access to their own data. “That allows families and students to make a choice to be engaged in some of the research that we're doing if they want to understand their individual developmental track. Or they want to be part of a larger study,” Odgers says.
3. Using Edtech to Support Individualized Learning
Technology has advanced enough to provide individualized feedback, so now it’s a matter of making sure that it actually helps students learn. “The software and the platforms are capable of doing it, but it's going to take a lot of smart people in the classroom, understanding the dynamics of how to make that all work together,” Odgers says. “It’s an area that's just going to explode in the next 5 to 10 years.”
CERES is positioned to help with that development by connecting AI programmers with the world’s leading learning science experts. “For example, Daniel Ansari is part of our network,” Odgers says. “There's probably nobody on the planet that understands how children learn early mathematics and mathematical concepts better.”
She adds having an expert such as Ansari work with programmers could help lead to richer AI programs that do more than just prompt new questions based on what a student answered correctly or incorrectly.
4. More User-Friendly Edtech
Educational technology is dominated by “enterprise applications,” which are products people are required to use, such as the learning management system each school has. These contrast with consumer-grade apps that people choose.
“Enterprise software is entirely built to be marketed to decision makers, not end users,” Hayes says. “So it tends to be a hodgepodge of features that some decision maker somewhere wants to say, ‘Can I check this box that it can do these things?’ Which is very different from, ‘We want a joyful and excellent and seamless experience,’ [like] what you're going to get from a consumer application. I think this is one of the real tensions that we see in educational software.”
It makes sense for educational app purchases to go through schools, Hayes adds, but perhaps research can help encourage more evidence-based app use that also keeps enjoyment and ease for end users in mind. “This is a case where by bringing together the groups that we're bringing together in this network, we can start to engage with those kinds of really thorny things that people haven't had the right mix of folks to look at before,” she says.
5. Building On a New Spirit of Innovation
“The pandemic has had a transformative effect on the way we think about modality of learning,” Hayes says. Prior to the pandemic, there was a clear dividing line between in-person and online education that has been shattered, she says. “We're starting to mix modes, we're bringing people in via telepresence robots and laptops. We're doing flipped classrooms. And we're doing all of these things that were sort of lurking in the background for a while.” And this renewed openness to innovation is something Hayes has witnessed at all education levels.
Harnessing the willingness of educators to try new things means there is more potential than there might have been in the past for new technology to be adopted and for new research to be applied. To foster that, CERES will be working closely with schools and front-line educators.
“Sometimes we see the scholars at the universities coming and shoving an intervention down the throats of the K-12 educators -- that is not the case with this group,” she says. “Bringing schools as first-order partners, along with libraries, along with community partners, along with industry, and this broad range of academics, is to me what's going to make this center different than anything else that has happened before.”